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The Komediant


The Komediant

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At one point in Arnon Goldfinger's documentary The Komediant, Mike Burstyn returns to the Catskills resort hotel where he, his sister Susan, his mother Lillian Lux, and his late father Pesach'ke Burstein used to perform their internationally renowned variety revue. Goldfinger cuts from archival footage of sun-soaked vacationers splashing in the pool to shots of that same pool today: empty, crumbling, and mossy. Burstyn, now in late middle age, walks through the wreckage of the lobby and points out where they ate and where synagogue was held. Then he reaches down and picks up a dusty, discarded yarmulke. At first, The Komediant seems to be the stuff of made-for-cable cinema. It's about a long-forgotten semi-celebrity, it features prominent interviews with another semi-celebrity (former Picket Fences star Fyvush Finkel), and it was shot on local-news-quality video. But Goldfinger pieces the narrative together carefully, relying mainly on the reminiscences of Pesach'ke Burstein's family, and on old films of his performances. Starting small, with Burstein's early years as a comic singer in roving European theater troupes and his struggles to get accepted by the fickle, politicized New York Yiddish Theatrical Alliance, The Komediant opens up over the course of its 80 minutes. It encompasses the difficulties of living in a show-business family, the uneasy relationship between American émigrés and the fledgling Israel, second-generation Americans' yearning to cross over to the mainstream, and the slow decline of a form of entertainment that helped immigrants ease the transition from Europe to the U.S. Goldfinger helps his cause by arranging the details of Burstein's life and career in chronological order, and by providing plenty of examples of his work: songs and playlets deeply steeped in the romanticism of the old-world Jewish community. He doesn't let the story become maudlin, but he also doesn't shy away from Susan's lingering resentment of a childhood spent on the road, Lux's pain at the memories of cutting a European tour short just before the Nazi invasion of Poland, or Burstyn's efforts to parlay his success as a young heartthrob into a career apart from his parents (a move he facilitated by changing his last name). But The Komediant's most deeply moving aspect lies in its misty memories of the glory years of the Yiddish theater, when an ethnic group rallied against its attempted decimation by forming allegiances and openly celebrating its culture. For the final shot of the movie, Goldfinger holds the camera on the entrance to the Yiddish Theatrical Alliance's cemetery, letting the stone gateway stand as a monument to the death of an entire way of life.